The United States and the European Union are giving serious thought to starting talks on a free trade agreement covering all business sectors, including agriculture, a traditional source of friction between the two sides, a top U.S. trade official said.
"A comprehensive agreement is obviously an important option to consider. It's one that we're taking a very close look at," Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro told Reuters.
The United States and the 27 countries of the European Union already have the largest economic relationship in the world. Two-way trade was about $640 billion in 2011 and investment by U.S. and European companies in each other's economies totals about $2.7 trillion.
But facing the prospect of years of slow growth as other countries like China, Brazil and India gallop ahead, U.S. and EU leaders in November established a high-level working group led by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht to explore ways the transatlantic partners could tie their economies even closer to create jobs.
Kirk and De Gucht were tasked to produce an initial report by June and final recommendations by the end of the year.
A coalition of business groups on both sides of the Atlantic are eager to get started faster than that.
They have called on President Barack Obama and his European counterparts, EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, "to commit to an accelerated launch of comprehensive transatlantic trade, investment and regulatory negotiations this year."
The business groups, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and BusinessEurope, are pushing for that statement when Obama hosts the Group of 8 leading economies meeting on May 19-20 at his Camp David presidential retreat.
Although Sapiro said talks between the United States and the EU on the jobs and growth initiative were proceeding well, she was reluctant to say leaders would be in a position to make that political commitment at the G8 meeting.
"We'll see how far along we are by then. I suspect there will be a lot of interest in this work and assessing where we are that stage," Sapiro said in the interview on Wednesday.
If the two sides can't agree to launch talks on a comprehensive pact, they could still tackle a more limited agenda to reduce barriers to trade, she said.
"The challenge is we want to be ambitious, but we also want to be realistic," Sapiro said.
Meanwhile, U.S. farm organizations, who have long complained about barriers to the EU market, are worried agriculture could be left out of any future U.S.-EU trade pact.
A coalition of 40 major U.S. farm groups have urged the White House to insist that negotiations with the EU be framed as a "single undertaking," meaning there would be no final agreement until every issue on the table is resolved.
In a letter last month to the Obama administration, they rejected an argument advanced by some business groups that reaching a deal on agriculture with the EU would be so difficult that it could jeopardize hopes of a broader trade pact.
"Of course, there will certainly be sensitivities on both sides on agricultural issues," the farm groups acknowledged.
Sapiro said the Obama administration agreed that agriculture must be part of any comprehensive deal with the EU.
"Agriculture is a critical component for us ... We wouldn't want to be less ambitious with the EU than we've been with our other partners," Sapiro said, noting U.S. free trade pacts traditionally cover agriculture.
For now, the two sides are still examining "what a comprehensive trade agreement would mean to see whether that might be a goal. We won't know until we've completed our analysis of that and other options," Sapiro said.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)